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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008 06:50 pm

A housing crisis and its new year’s resolution

How a “heathen with a heart” arranged a miracle

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Bobbie Hahn and Nick Stojakovich conduct a tour of Dorothy Milford’s “new” old home.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

This time of year, when you can offend one person by saying “Merry Christmas” and tick off the next with “Happy Holidays,” it’s nice to know you can still count on karma, that spiritual version of what goes around, comes around.

Take, for example, Dorothy Milford, first introduced to Illinois Times readers in April 2007, about a year and half after she had been forced to move out of the home she owns on South 16th Street. Mrs. Milford, the 72-year-old widow of a shoe cobbler, is the legal guardian of six grandchildren. They moved out of her house because the youngest two, then in preschool, had tested positive for lead poisoning. Inspectors who found the lead-based paint also discovered a crumbling support wall in her basement, and placarded the house as uninhabitable.

Mrs. Milford fought the demolition order in court, begging Seventh Circuit Court Judge Leo Zappa for time to repair the house. “My husband had put a zipper in his son’s coat one time, and I thought maybe I should tell him about that,” she says. She didn’t; instead, she kept promising Zappa that “people” were going to repair her house. “I just have not found everybody yet,” she’d say.

That’s not the karmic part; Mrs. Milford did nothing to deserve such bad luck. But it only continued.

At the time, saving her home was just one of her struggles. She also had to find a place to rent that was affordable on her Social Security stipend. It wasn’t easy. “I found out that if you have six grandchildren living with you, they’re not really wanting too much to rent to you,” she says.

The first home they leased, on North 4th Street, was found to be contaminated with the same kind of lead paint they were fleeing. They moved to Stewart Street, but couldn’t stay there for long, as that house was being razed to make way for an urban renewal project. Next, they rented a house on Pine Street, but the pipes burst just a few hours after they moved in. For the past year, they have leased a house on North 3rdSt., but last week’s cold snap caused the pipes to burst there, too, just after the furnace died.

Somewhere in the midst of this housing crisis, a sympathetic City of Springfield employee pitched Mrs. Milford’s plight to Bobbie Hahn, founder of the Loving God Outloud ministry. Hahn, a former mobile home dealer, normally matches up needy families with unused house trailers. But she wanted Mrs. Milford to have more than a double-wide; she wanted to restore Mrs. Milford’s own home. Having never tried to renovate a “stick-built” home, Hahn recruited Nick Stojakovich, of Hope Evangelical Church, to help with the project. Together, they recruited a small army of volunteers who have worked on Mrs. Milford’s house for almost two years.

They repaired the foundation, put on a new roof, and replaced virtually everything in between — wiring, plumbing, sheetrock and siding, the windows, the furnace, the stairs. They added a laundry room, and a second bathroom, in the upstairs hallway that had served as a makeshift bedroom for one of the teenagers. They got bunk beds for the kids and fresh sod for the front yard, so there’s no more poisonous lead.

If I named even the major donors who contributed to the project, the list would consume this entire page. Negwar donated the walls, Allied Plumbing gave the furnace, Henry’s Appliances donated a washer and dryer — the list goes on and on. The man who became the mortar that bound all the contributions of labor and materials together was Stojakovich — who, despite his church affiliation, refers to himself as “just a heathen with a heart.”

Last week, he took Mrs. Milford on a tour of her renovated home. “It’s just actually a miracle,” she says.

If you’re thinking this is the part about karma, you’re partially right: Mrs. Milford received a miracle because she deserved one. But hers isn’t the only family benefiting from the miraculous restoration of this home.

Last August, Stojakovich’s 25-year-old son Matthew died in an automobile accident in Pittsburgh, just weeks after helping his dad build Mrs. Milford’s new back porch. With pain so fresh it’s almost unbearable, Stojakovich has found comfort and joy in completing Mrs. Milford’s home.

“The best way to deal with grief is to reach out and help somebody else. It keeps me going,” Stojakovich says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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